29 January 2009

Hunting with an African. Zephyr, that is.

There have been more than a few inquiries, both private e-mails and requests through this blog, about the African Zephyr™ and whether or not I offer it in Faeton dress. While we’re waiting for more stories and other input from our readers, I’ll touch on this subject of the 8-bore African.

Clicking on any of the photos will enlarge them for a closer look. Clicking the "Back" arrow will return you to the text.

It seems that there has always been a certain mystique and fascination associated with the monstrous 8-bore rifle that still captivates the imagination and intrigues the minds of even those who have no intent of ever having one built and hunting Africa. Most who have an African Zephyr simply wanted it for the rather exclusive experience of owning and shooting a piece of modern firearms history.

Some have questioned how such a graceful and slender rifle can hold together under the heavy strain that the 8-bore generates - especially in view of the very bulky rifles of the same bore diameter that were made during the mid to late 1800s for the exploration (interpret as “exploitation”) of Africa by the powers of Europe.

Some doubt that it is possible to burn 300 grains of blackpowder in only 26 inches of barrel length as quoted as a working load. While others consider the Dual-Cap Ignition™ and the unique Wide-Body Barrel™ to be nothing more than marketing hype.

So, what is the real story behind the African Zephyr? Is it really all that unique in firearms history or are its features nothing more than mere hype?

Having cut my teeth on the writings of Elmer Keith, I have always been fascinated by big-bore rifles. I’ve had the opportunity, too, of proving and witnessing the truth behind many of Elmer’s claims, especially of the almost miraculous ability of a big-bore bullet for taking down large and tough game with a single shot. If you’ve never hunted with a really big-bore round-ball rifle, you can’t even imagine how effective they are.

For me this truth was later echoed in the 1863 writings of English Army ballistician, Lieutenant James Forsyth M.A., in his wonderful book, THE SPORTING RIFLE AND ITS PROJECTILES. That book was highly recommended by my mentor, the late Hall Sharon, founder of Sharon Rifle Barrel Company of Kalispell, Montana. Hall was one of the modern pioneers in re-introducing Forsyth rifling and was proving Forsyth's principles way back in the 1960s before most others ever discovered the all but forgotten book.

Hall, too, was fascinated by big-bore guns and convinced me that Pacific Rifle Company should offer rifles of at least .58 caliber as the market was already saturated with .45, .50 and 54-caliber muzzleloaders. I wondered whether there really could be a market for a high-quality, big-bore rifle as Hall had suggested – especially an underhammer. It seemed that if there was such a market, everyone would already be pursuing it - right?

I have always been grateful to Hall for encouraging me to take that road less-traveled, as the market for high-quality, big-bore underhammer rifles really does exist. True, it isn’t a huge market, but it is sufficient to keep several good gunmakers busy.

Having already successfully produced the Zephyr in 20, 16, (although not cataloged a few 16s were made) and 12 bores, making the 8-bore seemed like a logical progression. But the pursuit of it would prove to be far more challenging than any other Zephyr I had designed and built up to that time, as I prefer to build a rifle that handles like a fine Italian shotgun - as I detest rifles that handle like a fence post.

Monster-bore rifles require considerable weight in order to be manageable under recoil. Usually the bulk of the weight comes from the barrel. In order to add more weight, the barrel must be longer, or larger in diameter, or both. Weight can also be added in the form of lead plugs in the buttstock, which when done properly, can lend a better balance to the rifle.

After studying prior art in the form of the big-bore rifles made by English makers of the mid-1800s, I decided that I didn't like the rather morphed forms that those arms had taken in order to use a larger diameter barrel which helped provide the necessary weight and longer length to burn the full charge of powder they consumed.

The proportions of the barrel in relation to the lockplate, the trigger, and the generously-proportioned stock that held them all together, made those rifles look rather awkward and clubby to my eye. And after hefting a few of them, I was left disappointed and wondered if there could be another way to produce a big-bore rifle that remained slender, yet have sufficient weight and strength to deal with its inevitable recoil.

Many assume that the barrels on those behemoth rifles were larger in diameter to hold all that pressure that one might assume would be developed by the rather large charges of blackpowder needed to launch 750+grains of round ball with sufficient force to stop a T-Rex in its tracks. The fact is that those big-bore rifles actually produce less pressure than many more common smaller-bored muzzleloading rifles.

They didn’t need huge, thick-walled barrels for containing the pressure; they needed the extra metal for extra weight to manage the recoil. Because it is traditional form to use a symmetrically-shaped barrel, the only way to add more weight is to add more girth – or length. Consequently the barrels are either too fat and/or too long – to my sense of design, anyway.

While handling a nice Alex Henry .500 double rifle, the idea hit me to make the barrel wider at the rear than it is tall, similar to the configuration of the double rifle. Why not? If we don’t need all that metal for strength, why not re-arrange it in such a way that would provide sufficient wall thickness for the sake of strength, yet in a manner that would shift the weight for better balance and a slender profile that matched the existing Zephyr receiver?

After a bit of prototyping in wood, the present Wide-Body Barrel™ emerged as the best form to provide perfect balance by shifting the bulk of the barrel weight closer to the receiver. By making the barrel wider than tall, a very slender profile results that matches the Zephyr receiver perfectly. The wider breech-end of the barrel is also very reminiscent of the double rifles that I admire so much and is not at all unpleasant to the eye.

Even so designed, a typical 30-inch barrel is too long and unwieldy for a dangerous game rifle. In my opinion, such rifles should be rather short and handy and come to the shoulder quick and easy like a sawed-off shotgun. But, traditional design dictates that we need a sufficiently long barrel to burn the large powder charges that stoke this breed of rifles. Or, do we?

As anyone who has ever tuned their own car engine knows – and, yes, I realize that there are now two generations that probably haven’t a clue of what I’m about to state – you know that good, hot, fresh spark plugs can make a big difference in achieving the best performance from your car’s engine. In fact, there are some pretty exotic sparkplugs that are designed to put more fire into the cylinder for more complete combustion of the fuel for better performance.

In a muzzleloader the percussion cap is, quite literally, the sparkplug in your rifle. If the nipple is clogged with fouling residue, or if you’re using some caps that have been exposed to the weather for a time, or perhaps the air is rather humid, you know that ignition of the powder charge can be affected to the point where its discharge can be “iffy.”

The new breed of muzzleloaders who shoot in-line, modern versions of our classic smokepoles came to realize a long time ago that those wimpy #11 caps just can’t do the job when it comes to igniting imitation blackpowder and getting it to release its energy within a rather short barrel length as found on most of that ilk of front-loaders.

Their solution was to switch to #209 shotshell primers for a hot flash that virtually guarantees ignition of those hard-to-start semi-smokeless powders and the release of most of that latent energy during a rather quick trip down a short barrel.

Although I have not personally hunted anything more dangerous than amorous bull elk in rut, I have talked with muzzleloading hunters who have faced seriously dangerous game in Africa. One hunter told me that his greatest fear was that he would shoulder his rifle, find the game in his sights - just as the game was sighting in on him - and pull the trigger only to hear a gut- wrenching loud SNAP! that informed him that his percussion cap had decided to take the afternoon off. Seems it would be nice to have an instant backup right about then…

I have never had much use for #11 caps except for priming cap-and-ball revolvers, where their frangible crimped-foil construction actually serves its intended purpose – that is to blast apart and (hopefully) fall free of the revolving cylinder when it’s rotated to the next chamber.

The military learned early on that if you really want a rifle to fire under the most adverse conditions you use musket caps. They have sufficient priming charge to blast through the accumulation of several shots-worth of fouling in the nipple, snail or bolster and ignite even a slightly humid powder charge. They also display better manners than #11 caps by not spitting cap fragments at the shooter. The fact of their efficacy was so well established that it really wasn’t necessary to re-invent the wheel. It seemed pretty simple to me. If you really want the gun to fire, use musket caps. Yup - got it!

So, if one is good, two must be better…

Interestingly, the lowly underhammer action is the only type of muzzleloading system that can be easily adapted to fire two percussion caps into one barrel simultaneously. In my research on the subject, however, I could find no prior art – no reference of any kind – to anyone ever having made an underhammer that would fire two caps into the same powder charge at the same time. In that regard, the African is a first in firearms history.

If faced with a charging 2000+ pound Cape Buffalo, or an 8-foot lion intent on you being the main course at supper, or a charging 7-foot Alaskan bull moose for that matter, the thought of having a percussion rifle with dual caps, and a better-than-average chance of going off when the need be greatest, is rather comforting.

Aside from the greater assurance of ignition, dual caps also put a super-charged ignition impulse into the powder charge, much the same as dual sparkplugs do in a Chrysler hemi engine. (No, I’m not a Mopar man, but the idea does work.)

The African’s breech consists of a sub-chamber which holds about 1/6 of the 300-grain top-end load. The sub-chamber is based upon a modification of Nock’s Patent Breech in which the charge in the sub-chamber, ignited by two musket caps, produces relatively high pressure in the sub-chamber which ignites the main charge. Tremendous heat is generated which blasts into the main charge and gets it lit and burning fiercely - much quicker than a single #11 cap ever could in its wildest dreams. (Yes, I know that they make "magnum" #11 caps; but they still fragment and are not as hot as a musket cap.) Amazingly, such an arrangement, combined with a big round ball and Forsyth rifling, results in relatively low-pressure within the barrel itself.

Getting the most performance out of the available powder charge is actually a race against time. In the case of the African, we have a scant 26 inches of barrel length, which, when you consider the length of the breech plug, plus the length of the powder column and the patched ball, you have about 24 inches of potential combustion chamber. So time is of the essence. The quicker we can get all that powder involved in combustion, the greater the chance of burning it all before the ball exits the muzzle – hence, the best return in foot pounds of energy.

Still don’t believe that it's really possible to burn that amount of powder in such a short barrel? It really does pencil out scientifically and logically. Consider that the .62 Zephyr, or Faeton, will burn 200 grains of ffg blackpowder in its 30-inch barrel. BTW, that IS a safe charge in my Forsyth-rifled .62 barrels. In this example the 200 grains of powder represents 62.5% of the weight of the ball that it’s pushing.

Now let’s consider the 8-bore African with a top load of 300 grains of ffg. In this case the 300-grain powder charge represents only 37.5% of the weight of that huge round ball and the resulting powder column is really quite short in that voluminous bore. So it’s not too much of a stretch of credibility to see that we’re actually burning relatively less powder in the 8-bore -even in its shorter barrel. The African can and does digest the whole charge in just two feet of barrel. (But to be sure, we shot the African over a bed sheet and at 300 grains there was no unburned powder left on the sheet!)

And that, boys and girls, is what Dual-Cap Ignition is all about. It will assure that 300 grains of blackpowder will be consumed in less than 26 inches of barrel and its energy translated into a huge round ball having a Taylor Knock Out value of 151.7 at the muzzle. For comparison sake, the justly-famous .460 Weatherby Magnum, shooting the 500-grain bullet, has a Taylor value of 88.3. That’s just a shade under our 12-bore African which averages 93.5.

Some wonder how the trim and slim African can possibly hold up to the strain of such powerful loads. The secret is in the union of the barrel, receiver and buttstock.

Unlike ordinary underhammer designs that may use a tapered pin or set screws to anchor the barrel into the receiver or standing breech, the African’s barrel and breechplug is screwed into the receiver and the two components are then torqued together just like a center-fire rifle. This creates a very tight union with absolutely no play or slack between the barrel and receiver that can cause a rifle to shoot loose and self-destruct under recoil.

The union between the buttstock and the receiver is also extremely solid and tight. After perfect fitting of the dense English walnut buttstock to the receiver, they are secured into union by a large, heat-treated draw bolt.

Most firearms that utilize a draw bolt that passes through the buttstock into the receiver traditionally use one that is a mere ¼-inch in diameter - some even less. For most guns that might suffice. However, in order to hold up to a lifetime of hard use, the African’s buttstock is secured by a ½-inch grade-8 bolt (the toughest kind) that is 6½ inches long and which is torqued into the receiver like the head bolts on a truck engine.

The result is a stiffness of the rifle that assures that under recoil it will move as one solid unit and not as a group of dubiously-jointed components that under recoil move in a series of collisions between the barrel and receiver, or standing breech, and then the receiver/standing breech into the buttstock. The result of such flimsy construction is a rifle that shoots loose, cracks the stock, and develops inaccuracy.

Some consider this over-engineering of the Zephyr to be part of the marketing hype, but I don’t settle for good enough when outstanding is possible.

Many believe that shooting the African must be just plain brutal. But just the opposite is the case. Housed within the African’s stock is an internal recoil reduction system that absorbs the punch and converts it to a more comfortable, longer-wave “shove.” That, coupled with the African’s weight of 13 pounds and a generous shotgun buttplate measuring 2" wide by almost 6" long, makes its shove quite manageable by even the average shooter. And, of course, one doesn’t have to stoke it to the limit just to have fun. A charge of only 70 - 100 grains of ffg, touched off with only a single cap, will provide all manner of shooting satisfaction and is sure to Wow! any bystanders. With just a few more grains of powder, it is also quite sufficient to cleanly dispatch monster moose or elk, and certainly stop dead the charge of a rogue grizzly or giant brownie with one well-placed shot.

Seen here is gunwriter, Phil Peterson, test-firing the prototype 8-bore African Zephyr. I borrowed the pics from his feature about the 8-bore that was published in the Summer of 2000 issue of the excellent, but sadly now defunct, BLACKPOWDER HUNTING. Interesting story if you can round up a copy of the magazine. You can plainly see that the rifle’s shove is quite manageable by anyone familiar with big-bore rifles. BTW, he claimed three-shot offhand groups of 2-inches despite the shove. Remember to click on this rare photo for a closer look!

The claims about the superior reliability and performance of the African are all true. As a classy, big-bore percussion rifle that handles as quick and smoothly as a sawed-off shotgun, with knockdown power to spare for any game on planet Earth, the African has no equal. It’s as rugged, reliable, and tough as a Mack truck but disguised within the sleek gracefulness of a Ferrari.

While I do offer the Faeton in African garb, Pacific Rifle Company still provides the African Zephyr in its original form, and as I am quite booked, it would be best to contact them about their current delivery schedule if you are indeed in the market for a unique piece of firearms history – the African Zephyr, or Faeton, if you really insist.

African Zephyr™, Genuine Forsyth Rifling™, Dual-Cap Ignition™, and Wide-Body Barrel™, are all trademarks of Pacific Rifle Company who reserves all rights thereto. They may be contacted at: pacificriflecompany@gmail.com or pay them a visit at their new site: www.pacificriflecompany.blogspot.com.

Hope that's helpful.




Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Renner,

Thank you for a wonderful feature on the African Zephyr. I was one of those who asked if you could offer more information as I have always admired that rifle since first reading about it almost 9 years ago in Blackpowder Hunting magazine.

I knew it was something special when I first read of it, but I had no idea how amazing a rifle it is.

You are right when you say that many people are interested in the 8-bore African even if they can't afford one. We still like to read about them and I hope you will continue to write this blog. I read it religiously as it is the only place where I have found any useful information about underhammer guns.

Thanks for a good story.


PS: I have a Numrich Arms underhammer in .36 caliber that I have sort of customized. Maybe I'll send you a picture someday.

Dan Van Wormer said...

I was looking for a copy of "The Sporting Rifle and Its Projectiles", when I learned that it's copyright had expired and it was now public domain. Some nice people at Google scanned the book from a library and you can now read it on-line or download your own free PDF copy. I'm sorry that the link is so long, but it is worth it. I'm off to read the book now.


Roger Renner said...


Sorry that the link to Pacific Rifle Company was not functioning. They do have an new e-mail link that is now posted in the article.

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About Me

Roger Renner

Hi. I've been a student, admirer, and designer/builder of underhammer guns for over 30 years. In that span I've built over 200 semi-custom underhammers exploring the possibilities from the ordinary to the exotic. In 1996 I founded Pacific Rifle Company to explore the market's interest in a high-quality underhammer rifle. Thankfully, that interest was, and still is, there. I sold PRC in 2006 but continue to craft high-end underhammers as I am truly afflicted with underhammeritis - which can be contagious!